After Wim Wenders’ “Pope Francis. A Man of his Word”, presented at the 71st Cannes Film Festival, the restored version of Bicycle Thieves, the film directed by Vittorio De Sica and written by Cesare Zavattini, was presented in the category Cannes Classics. First screened 70 years ago, in the fall of 1948, Bicycle Thieves, along with The Children are Watching Us, and other films of Italian neo-realistic cinema, was described by Pope Francis as , “a veritable catechesis of humanity.” Restored to its original splendour by the Bologna Film Foundation conservation Lab L’Immagine Ritrovata, with the support of the Istituto Luce-Cinecittà, the film is not only a masterpiece of world cinema and of Italian neorealism, it’s also a snapshot of suffering humanity striving to recover from the ashes of the Second World War.
“Bicycle thieves”, a gaze towards the peripheries. In February 1948, upon the presentation of this project with Cesare Zavattini, with whom he had previously collaborated in “Sciuscia”, released in 1946, and in The Children are Watching Us in 1943, De Sica said: “I decided to make this movie because after ‘Sciuscià’, I had thirty or forty scripts to chose from, one more beautiful than the other, describing consequential events, momentous circumstances. But I was looking for a less extraordinary story, an experience everyone could relate to, especially the poor.” “We’re like coffee and milk”, remarked the renowned screenwriter underlining the harmonious relationship between the two artists. “Bicycle Thieves” was a liberal adaptation for the screen from a novel by Luigi Bartolini published in 1946. De Sica explained: “The script is radically different from the novel (set in a more festive atmosphere, somewhat picaresque). In fact the protagonist, the man whose bicycle is stolen, is not Bartolini but a bill sticker who desperately wanders across Rome in search of his vehicle.”
De Sica and Zavattini made a film from a social perspective, accurately depicting the disorientation of a humanity struggling to jump on the train of the Country’s economic recovery.
The protagonist of the film, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), is living the tragedy of unemployment with a family to take care of. There is little that he still owns, he pawned most his possessions. When he is offered work as a bill-poster he takes his bedsheets to the pawn shop to redeem his bicycle, a condition for employment. Just when his situation seemed to be boding well, he is overwhelmed by a downward spiral. His bicycle is stolen. Antonio, accompanied by his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), begins his quest for the stolen bicycle, relentlessly wandering through Rome’s open markets and narrow streets, consumed by the longing for a long-awaited means to upward his condition. It will only arrive at the price of strong humiliation.
Glances between father and son. The exchange of gazes between the two protagonists, father and son, is poetic and disturbing at the same time. Antonio’s eyes are those of a man who lost his bearings. A man on his last legs, worn out by a reality that gives no respite. Bruno’s eyes, those of a boy rapidly led into adulthood, silently and tenderly follow his father’s actions, fearing he may commit a desperate gesture. His eyes, his tears, his anguish as he cries out “Daddy, daddy, daddy…” are framed in the spectator’s imagination in the final sequence of the film, when Antonio, after a clumsy and desperate attempted theft is surrounded by a crowd that invokes punishment and justice.
Sympathy for the father, who must be given another opportunity, ultimately prevails.
Far from being a compromise solution for a crime, it represents the need to see reality from a new perspective. The director said in this respect: “The elements of mockery regard the ridiculousness of social contradictions to which society turns a blind eye; the ridiculousness of incomprehension, that prevents the emergence of truth and reality. I dedicate my film to the suffering of the outcast.”
The depiction of a Country as a new course begins. The De Sica-Zavattini masterpiece follows the thrust of Italian cinema – whose notable representatives include Roberto Rossellini (“Rome, open city” 1945; “Paisan”, 1946), Luchino Visconti (“Ossessione”, 1943; “La terra trema”, 1948) and Giuseppe De Santis (“Riso amaro”, 1949) – which developed a new narrative that broke away from old films set in fictional contexts. Neo-realist cinema is a close reflection of reality, as Zavattini used to say; it delves into the situation of Italian society after the devastation of war, extending its gaze to the suburban areas in particular.
Italian films produced in that period gave a central role to the poor, the outcast, their anxieties and their desperate yearning to get back on their feet.
After the so-called “white telephone films” set in upper-class environments, filmmakers went out on the streets to tell stories of everyday life, depicting a reality heaped with rubbles and rock-bottom poverty, without pietism or whitewashing. Rather, these films reflect the commitment to unveil reality in all its complexity, focusing on situations on the margins of society. This snapshot of society lasted only a few years. In fact, shortly after “Bicycle Thieves” and “La terra trema” released in 1948, neo-realistic cinema took on colourful nuances, as the Country finally took a new course, headed towards economic boom that peaked in the early 1960s. But that’s a different story.